“I’m hoping this summer is the summer of the road trip,” says Atlas Obscura co-founder (and podcast host) Dylan Thuras. “It’s such an amazing, delightful way to travel. Covid-era feels like the right time for it — we’ll get back to international travel next year.”
Thuras makes a solid point. While international travel sounds insanely appealing after a year spent at home, there’s a wide range of factors to consider when planning a trip abroad in the post-Covid era. Do the people in the place you’re visiting actually want you there right now? Are you ready and willing to take all necessary precautions? Are you adding stress to the local infrastructure?
For anyone not ready to wrestle with those heady matters, the case for focusing on road trips and micro-adventures as we ease out of the pandemic is incredibly strong. And there are plenty of restaurants, hotels, and tour operators who can use your support right now. As for the planning bit, Thuras’s new Atlas Obscura podcast offers a great resource.
“Atlas Obscura started over a decade ago as sort of this crowd-sourced but editor fact-checked database of the world’s hidden wonders,” he tells me over the phone. “Now that database is 20,000 places plus. The podcast is really just a new way to tell those same kinds of stories.”
In a sea of travel pods, the Atlas Obscura podcast takes a unique approach — with four episodes per week (Monday to Thursday) clocking in at an average time of 15 minutes. This makes them remarkably digestible. A quick and easy audio snack, perfect for planting the seeds of your next adventure.
“Each day we take listeners on a journey through a brand new place,” Thuras says. “The place is often kind of the keyhole into a whole little world or a new way of experiencing or seeing the world. Little journeys and moments that allow you to step into a place of wonder.”
We linked up with Thuras to tap the living travel encyclopedia for an epic list of his “must-visit” road trip stops. While this list skews toward western and midwestern curiosities, he was sure to hit us with some east coast gems as well. Let’s dive in!
A great classic road trip stop on the way to Joshua Tree, the Cabazon Dinosaurs are in the Pee-Wee movie. For a long time, they had a kind of creationist museum in the belly of the dinosaur, which made it extra weird, but this is still a great stop to make while heading toward Joshua Tree.
A little bit outside of Joshua tree in a different town, called Landers, is the world’s largest free-standing boulder: Giant Rock. It’s about seven stories tall, it has been an important location since indigenous Native American times but in the ’50s it became the sight of a sort of UFO mania.
The other wild thing about Giant Rock is that even before that happened there was a miner, named Frank Critzer, who dug underneath the boulder and built himself a little house under there. He lived under this rock for years and years until, basically, he had an encounter with the police who thought he was spying during the war, and ended up dying.
They basically threw explosives in his apartment.
All of this history ties together in this incredible and interesting fabric. Part of the reason Critzer ended up there behind this rock is that he was friends with George Van Tassel, who was an inventor who was working with Howard Hughes on plane technology. After Critzer died, Van Tassel was very affected by his death and became obsessed with the idea of otherworldly beings, aliens from Venus, and started these UFO conventions and went on to build a nearby site called the Integratron — this wild circular little white dome-shaped space where they still do these healing sound baths. For Van Tassel, it was this energy focusing alien communicating thing.
Joshua tree, that whole area in the Yucca Valley, is filled with so many outsider art projects, the world-famous crochet museum… Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum is a sort of outdoor sculpture installation, it’s a great place to start a road trip.
As you get into Death Valley, besides all the really great Death Valley national park stuff itself, which is like a whole day’s worth of activity and, if you stick around at night, some of the best stargazing in the world, there is a lot of weird interesting stuff out there! There is something called the Amargosa Opera House — it is what it sounds like, an opera house — but what makes it so interesting is the owner, Marta Becket, moved from New York as a successful performer and moved to this town with no one in it, opened her Opera House, performed daily and painted the entire theater with these murals of an audience.
There is something melancholy about it except that she eventually attracted tons and tons of people and it became this real pilgrimage to make. People would come and watch her shows all the time, she ended up with sold-out houses, it’s this kind of interesting self-fulfilling outsider artist visionary trip.
On the other side of Las Vegas is one of my favorite art pieces, Double Negative, by an artist named Michael Heizer. It’s maybe one of the most monumental pieces of land art in the US. Heizer basically found this mesa and carved on either edge, these two gigantic notches into the edge of the mesa. It’s an interesting sculpture, his quote about it is “There is nothing there, yet it is still a sculpture.” And the name “Double Negative” kind of tells you that.
It’s so strange, by removing the dirt and the rocks, it creates what’s kind of a giant invisible floating sculpture.
Up from Double Negative, you get to some of the more far-out areas of Nevada like Tom Kelly’s Bottle House or the Clown Motel. Tom Kelly’s Bottle House is a house made of bottles, a cool little stop on your way out into the middle of nowhere.
You can then head out to one of my favorite towns, the last town to get gas and beer and snacks before you’re on Route 50 for the loneliest road that goes on forever. You can spend a night sleeping at the Clown Motel if that’s something that doesn’t bother you. Every room has a painted portrait of a clown, the lobby is filled with 700 clown dolls and it just happens to be located next to an old abandoned miners’ cemetery. It could not be more out of a Steven King novel, it’s almost out of a Goosebumps book, honestly.
Home to the most beautiful, weird twisted gnarly trees you’ve ever seen. They’re also some of the oldest trees in the world. The trees in this park, some of them are 5000 years old! It’s an amazing place to spend a little time, take a little hike, eat your lunch, and get some perspective on what a brief moment our lives actually are. It helps you appreciate that whatever you’re doing at that moment, taking that vacation is the right thing to be doing. We don’t have that much time, not compared to a Bristlecone.
Another cave home! I didn’t mean this to be a theme but this is another place where people dug out a house for themselves into the side of a cliff and weirdly, it still has all the furniture. It’s a sort of ’40s and ’50s style home, although it also has a weird taxidermy borough in it, which is not standard ’40s decor.
Bishop Castle is one of my absolute favorite places of all time, and one of the greatest pieces of outsider art in the entire US. It is the largest self-built castle in the United States, it took six decades to build, and one guy named Jim Bishop built it almost entirely by himself.
To visit you have to sign a form that says basically if you fall off the castle and die it’s your bad, and then you can explore this incredible creation, this enormous space where every rock has been moved up by Jim and mortared into place and at the very top there are these incredible, very sketchy feeling, I imagine they’re pretty strong because they’re still standing, but these wrought iron hand-welded bridges on the top of this 16 story castle that you can walk across.
There is nothing else like it in the country.
Up near Denver, is the International Church of Cannabis. Obviously, Denver was an early convert to legalization, but in the early days, these two guys bought a defunct church, painted the inside with these wild unbelievable murals, and turned it into an operating church.
Straight up from Colorado, we’re going to hit one of the most classic roadside attractions — Wall Drug. It’s right outside of Mount Rushmore, back when Mount Rushmore opened, it became immediately a huge draw, so it spawned this radius of attractions around it.
Wall Drug opened up back then and sometimes it called the granddaddy of all tourist traps, which is about right. In the early days, they offered free ice water, which was their big appeal, but then they started adding giant dinosaur sculptures, and weirdly they became Jackalope-themed, which is this mythical creature that is basically a rabbit with horns. For a while, there were a lot of people making jackalope taxidermy, which is basically a piece of rabbit taxidermy with small deer antlers attached to it. We can go for hours about why the jackalope is a thing, but I’m going to skip that for now.
Anyway, it became jackalope-themed and they still sell jackalope taxidermy, they have this giant fiberglass jackalope outside. Wall Drug is this truly quintessential American tourist trap in the best way.
I grew up a mid-western kid, I didn’t travel internationally until I was 18. We didn’t do that kind of travel with my parents at all, it was all these epic road trips around North, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. When I was 12 we went to this place in the woods of Wisconsin called The House on the Rock. Kind of classic weird crazy roadside attraction. This place is so hard to encapsulate for people, the short version is, the folklore is that it was built as sort of an architectural revenge story against Frank Lloyd Wright, but then the creators just kind of kept adding on to it and adding on to it. It takes like five hours to walk through the whole thing. In your trip through this crazy psychedelic house, there is a statue of a whale fighting a squid that is the size of the Statue of Liberty. Inside the house!
It has the world’s largest indoor carousel, it has this room that looks like it goes on for infinity, it’s just this kind of cantilevered hallway that points out over the forest and it gets skinner and skinner and skinner creating a sort of optical illusion.
Those are a small sampling of what’s in that place. If you’ve ever read Neil Gaiman’s book, American Gods it’s where he sets the major kind of meeting of the Gods, and he’s gone on the record and said he’s had to tone down the weirdness so people would buy it.
But as a twelve-year-old that experience had a profound effect on me — if this is in the woods of Wisconsin, what else is in the world?
As I got older, as a teenager in Minneapolis I got into urban exploring and graffiti and that showed me a different way of experiencing a place, and that a city can be filled with all these interesting tucked away corners.
It’s a giant palace covered entirely in corn. You can go inside, they have different gatherings in there, it’s very strange; very South Dakota.
Back near my old stomping grounds, near Minnesota-Wisconsin, after the House under the Rock, there is this nearby place, Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron. It’s a giant metal sculpture yard built by one guy who helped with the House on the Rock. He was a demolition expert in his professional life, he would knock down buildings and tear apart these big industrial spaces and he collected all of that stuff and sort of welded it into these weird electro futuristic almost steampunk spaceships made out of leftover materials. It’s a super cool space.
If you like mustard you can hit up the National Mustard Museum, it is exactly what it sounds like. You can get a lot of mustard.
The company that’s basically making all of these weird fiberglass dinosaurs and jackalopes is this company called FAST fiberglass. This is where they dispose of their failed molds and broken fiberglass experiments. There are cool skate videos of people doing tricks on these weird giant fiberglass mouses and stuff.
If you are in New York and looking for something amazing nearby to do, I’m going to send you to a place in New Jersey called Northlandz with a “Z.” It’s the pet project of a guy who made his money in computers and software in the ’90s who decided that what he wanted to do with that money is build the world’s biggest greatest most mind-boggling miniature train sets. I think a lot of people go “Eh I don’t care about miniature trains.”
If you think that, you’re wrong!
This place is on a different scale, you actually wind through it multiple times because you’re moving up through it at multiple levels, and there are whole mountain ranges that are 50 feet tall! I don’t know if they’re that tall, but they are very tall, many floors tall, there are little mountain towns with trains rounding around them and they go through tunnels and go down into the valley and past the river, and this guy also built a giant enormous pipe organ that he taught himself to play.
He’s still there and is often the dude serving the weird microwave pizza at the snack bar. You can find him and be like “tell me about this whole thing” and maybe if you’re lucky you’ll catch one of the organ performances.
Less weird and wacky, there is a really incredible wolf conservation center in South Salem. You can go and see wolves, learn about them, they even have wolf ambassadors that you can sometimes meet. We did a project with them and they brought a wolf ambassador down to a bar in Greenpoint Brooklyn, everyone was chilling in the bar and this wolf and their handler walked in. Quite literally, a wolf walked into a bar.
Not that far from New York City is a place in Nyack New York called the Clausland Mountain Tunnels. They were built as a rifle range for the New York national guard in the early 1900s, but it was basically a giant boondoggle, they built all of these tunnels half-buried in the grown so the people can move around the rifle range without getting shot but what they didn’t think about was that everyone who was practicing shooting, was shooting over towards the Hudson and over toward a town.
Bullets were falling on people’s barns! It was called “a menace to life” by the New York Times and it was shuttered only three years after it was opened, so it became this abandoned space with all of these overgrown half-buried tunnels. Today it takes on this life as one of these places where teenagers, and not only teenagers, go to freak themselves out. Even in the daytime, these tunnels are pitch black and they are filled with cave crickets. These things grow to the size of a tennis ball, and when they are disturbed they leap three feet. They stay on the ceiling so when you walk under them they just start bouncing around.
I didn’t know that when I went with my bud. There is a spot where you climb through the roots of an old tree into these tunnels and it’s this weirdo terrifying Alice in Wonderland experience and you’re surrounded by these big bouncing spider-looking creatures, they’re totally harmless, but there are hundreds of them, thousands. That’s a space I would not go at night and I would not go alone.
It’s not trespassing… it’s an undeveloped state park, so you can go walk your dog and check them out, you don’t have to go in the tunnels.